In his speech, the president joked that he had insisted for Wiley not to portray him in such regal glamour—with a scepter or on a horse. “I had to explain that I’ve got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon! You’ve got to bring it down a touch,” he said. To which Wiley rejoined with a laugh, “How do you explain that a lot of that is just simply not true?”
Wiley’s work has earned him mountains of praise—the New York Times
called him “one of the most celebrated painters of his generation” in 2015—but he’s also faced criticism surrounding the revelation that the lush background patterns of his canvases were the product of studio assistants, or even outsourced to China. The entirety of Obama’s portrait was painted by the artist himself, Sean Kelly
, his dealer, confirmed.
The chance to paint America’s first black president is the realization of a long-held dream for Wiley. The artist also remarked upon a symbiotic relationship between the painter and his subject—both were born to American mothers and absent fathers from Africa.
“It’s a personal portrait for him,” said Kelly.
A tearful Wiley also thanked his mother, who “found a way to get paint and she had the ability to be able to picture something bigger than that piece of South Central [Los Angeles] we were living in.”
Capturing the likeness of a President is almost always a novel challenge for any portrait painter. Though Wiley has painted celebrities like LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash, both he and Sherald often select complete strangers that grab their attention as subjects—the kind of everyday African Americans erased from, and ignored by, art history. It is no surprise then that representation and race are central to both artist’s practice.
“I basically paint people who I want to see exist in the world,” Sherald said in a 2016 interview
. “But then I also want to creative a narrative that's extricated from a dominant historical narrative.”
Critics had warm words for the selection of the two artists. Both Obamas are known for an engagement with modern and contemporary art unprecedented for any residents of the White House, before or since. During the Obama presidency, artwork by African Americans such as
graced the walls, while 19th-century portraits were replaced with conceptual modern pieces by
The choice of such artwork, and of Wiley and Sherald, showcased “the Obamas’ instincts for balancing the expected and the surprising, and for being alert to painting’s pertinence to the moment,” wrote
Roberta Smith in the New York Times.
The dramatic and emotional ceremony Monday echoed that moment nearly a decade ago, when a man and his wife stood on a stage in Chicago and thanked Americans for sending them to the White House. Sherald’s and Wiley’s paintings amount to an intimate conversation with a couple changed by two terms in power, perhaps more weary from their time in office, but still imbued with the ability to inspire. Even now, even after all that has happened, the portraits bring memories of hope and anticipation, at once palpable but impossibly far away.